My cod, what a diner!

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IT WOULD be difficult to find any creature whose diet sometimes takes in the following: water dragons (lizards), turtles, frogs, water birds such as ducks and grebes, and terrestrial animals such as mice and snakes. Even unusual snacks including kookaburras, possums, a crow with a jam tin on its head, a butcher’s knife, golf balls and a margarine container. To that list can be added polystyrene cups, plastic worm containers and an uneaten tomato sandwich. This rare diner is the subject of today’s fishing column from STEVE COOPER:

In my youth, older folks told me there were three topics gentlemen should not discuss in polite conversation: sex, politics and religion.  Being apolitical and an atheist, politics and religion are permanently off the agenda. But sex? Cod Almighty! What better way to introduce Australia’s premier freshwater fish than by breaking with convention, and exposing the sexual proclivities of the Murray cod?

So here it is: In November, 2006, Fisheries Victoria issued a press release to announce that thunderstorm activity had encouraged sexual activity in Murray cod broodfish.  The first thunderstorm, in late October, induced seven Murray cod to spawn in brood pond nesting boxes; three nights later there was another thunderstorm, and more Murray cod shenanigans.

Gus Storer holds a huge cod
Gus Storer holds a huge cod

Wow! If only it were that easy; puts a new meaning on the term “thunderbox”.

ABOUT COD

Murray cod is the freshwater heavyweight of Australian waters. A fish with iconic status that is capable of growing to 1.8 metres long and weighing more than 113kg, Murray cod rank number seven or eight on the list of the world’s biggest freshwater fish.

Like many fish, cod change colour to suit their environment. In the tannin-stained waters of New England’s granite belt, Murray cod are mottled dark olive and black with dark fins. In the NSW-Victoria stretches of the Murray-Darling basin, cod colours vary from dark to light pastel green with lighter fin colourations. Move downstream along the Murray River into South Australia and the green turns to shades of grey. Tannin stained, soiled and second-hand waters; three water variants that produce the same fish in different colourations.

Murray cod go by a number of different names. Some anglers call them by the old English name, Codfish, while Greenfish and the Aboriginal term “Goodoo” are in common usage. Dr Stuart Rowland, principal research scientist at the Grafton Research Centre, said that Aborigines of the lower Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers called Murray cod “Ponde”; in the upper Murrumbidgee, cod were called “Pewuruk’; in the Tumut region Aborigines called the varieties of cod, “Pewuk” and “Mungee”, possibly referring to Murray cod and Trout cod.

Whichever vernacular you choose, there is no denying the prestige that the Murray cod holds, both in angling and Australian bush folklore. More tall stories do the rounds on cod than for any other Australian fish, freshwater or saltwater. There are tales of cod so big they had gravel rash on their bellies and sunburnt backs; of cod so ravenous that sheep and large dogs trod warily when sipping along the banks of cod waters.

Above all else, Murray cod represent an Australian way of life. Setting up swags under gum trees, building campfires, cooking in camp ovens and yarning with fishing mates, is as Australian as wattle trees, billabongs and bunyips, and you won’t experience it on the Internet. As you chew the fat off a steak, and the yellow flames of the campfire fade to red-hot embers, while fellow members of the Crackatinnie club begin to yarn; a priceless lifestyle, free to anyone who wants to partake.

In southern Australia, the Murray River ranks as one of the last bastions of freedom; a place where a man is still allowed to make camp without having to pay or sign a visitor’s book. This is swag and billy country; a cosmic experience where a wash is a swim in the river, and a nature walk taken with a shovel in hand and a roll of toilet paper tucked under the arm.

Small vee hulled boats and big Murray cod sometimes require a balancing act
Small vee hulled boats and big Murray cod sometimes require a balancing act

SEASON

In NSW and Victoria, cod season closes on August 31 and opens on December 1. South Australia’s cod season is generally later.

FEEDING

The Murray cod has been described as an opportunistic feeder, an interesting choice of words, given that it makes cod the freshwater equivalent of an ecological niche that includes road kill gourmets like crows: none of which means cod aren’t fussy about what they eat. When you are well fed you can afford to be choosy; even crows prefer fresh prairie oysters to sun dried rabbit. Cod are no different but a hungry cod will eat just about anything, including unusual items. Less common foods include water dragons (lizards), turtles, frogs, water birds such as ducks and grebes, and terrestrial animals such as mice and snakes. Unusual items reported are kookaburras, possums, and a crow with a jam tin on its head, a butcher’s knife, golf balls and a margarine container. To that list can be added polystyrene cups, plastic worm containers and an uneaten tomato sandwich.

A shrimp and worm cocktail bait used for Murray cod.
A shrimp and worm cocktail bait used for Murray cod.

SIZE

Under normal conditions, it takes a cod about five years to grow from a fingerling to the minimum legal length of 60cm and about 3-4kg. These are small fry compared with the record posted by Native Fish Australia on its website: a 1.83m, 113kg (6 ft., 250 lbs. on the Imperial scale) specimen caught during a long drought in the Barwon River at Walgett in NSW. The following letter, supplied by Will Trueman, was published in the letters pages of the Sydney Morning Herald on October 6, 1955:

Showing off the oversize lips and enormous mouth of a big Murray cod.
Showing off the oversize lips and enormous mouth of a big Murray cod.

Sir,

During the big 1902 drought, the bridge workmen camped at the four-mile crossing of the Barwon River, Walgett. Disturbed by a great commotion in the water at night, they discovered the cause to be an outsize cod chasing other fish. They obtained a large hook made by a local blacksmith, baited it with a lump of kangaroo, then fastened it to fencing wire tied to a stake driven into the ooze. The monster was then lured to his doom. Conveyed to town, it was weighed and proved to be just on 250lb. It was exhibited in a marquee; the local bellman notified residents that 1/ (one shilling) would admit each one to view the giant, and the sum of £20 (pounds) was raised for the local hospital.

G. Noble, Coogee.

RELIGION

Fishing for Murray cod has, and continues to be, a uniquely Australian experience. Sometimes the learning is more fun than the fishing. On my cod journey, I enjoyed the camaraderie of campfire tales told with colourful language against a backdrop of flickering flames, eucalypts and water. Well, it will soon be December, cod season will open, and Thank Cod for that!

Devoted cod anglers can be the piscatorial equivalent of fire and brimstone preachers, complete with tunnel vision and no time for anyone who wavers from their perceived path to righteousness. If you think this sounds over the top, check out some of the fishing websites and read what people like “Goodoo” have to say about cod.  Several years past, I wrote what I thought was a balanced column dealing with a proposal by greenies to insist that water overflows on dams be taken from the warmer, top water rather than the colder water down deep. These people claimed that cold water being passed into a river was affecting native species. The trout people immediately arced up in defence of Mr Speckles, saying trout would not appreciate warm water over their redds (breeding grounds).

Amid this, I suggested there was room for both cod and trout in our waters. I was wrong; at least in the eyes of Goodoo who told me I had no right to support trout. Cod can do that to some people. Sadly, some of my cod fishing friends agreed. These people, the same ones who regard trout as “speckled cod lollies”, told me that there was no “middle ground” when it came to greenfish. Cod help us! Some days you can’t win.

Surface lures can work well for cod at dusk and into the evening.
Surface lures can work well for cod at dusk and into the evening.

For Victorian and southern New South Wales anglers, the season opener begins with the annual Cod Classic at Lake Mulwala in December. More than 2,500 anglers arrive from parts unknown for the two-day fish fest organised by Tony Bennet on behalf of the Mulwala Football Club. It is a fun event with plenty of prizes and social activity.

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Author: Steve Cooper

STEVE COOPER won two Walkley Awards for investigative journalism but his great love is fishing and he is renowned as one of Australia’s foremost writers and broadcasters on the subject.

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